As if the cause itself wasn’t worthy enough, the fact that the legendary Lou Reed played at the first fund-raiser for the landscape designer Edwina von Gal’s Azuero Earth Project in 2012 definitely made people stand up and take notice of the tiny organization working predominantly in rural Panama.
Two years later, the equally legendary Roger Waters, co-founder of Pink Floyd, will be the special guest at a Labor Day weekend benefit picnic at Cindy Sherman’s house in Springs for the Azuero Project and the Perfect Earth Project, an initiative Ms. von Gal is leading to promote toxin-free lawn and landscape care closer to home.
Though different in focus, the two efforts rise from the same principles: that reducing chemical use and nurturing the land — whether it be a farm in Panama or a backyard in Sagaponack — in a way that works with nature, not against it, is ultimately better for the individual, the community, and the world.
“We are what I call ‘rational naturalists.’ Whatever it takes to get someone to ease into the program is fine with us,” Ms. von Gal said on Friday at her home office in Springs. In other words, while she envisions a more “perfect earth,” she realizes that it will take time and lot of education to approach that vision, hence the Perfect Earth initiative.
In Panama, where Ms. von Gal owns land on the Azuero Peninsula, her nonprofit works to preserve biodiversity and encourage healthier agricultural methods that will allow rural farmers to sustain their land and their communities well into the future.
With a large and influential client list here in the United States, it made sense that she would eventually bring a similar message back home, but focused instead on lawns and landscapes.
“I never paid much attention to the lawn,” she said. Going chemical-free had never been a priority on the properties she designed, but she had always “used plants that I didn’t think were so chemically dependent.” Her style is natural, serene, rarely formal, and her designs are sought after by a who’s who of clients and architects — she was in Panama originally to design the park for a museum of biodiversity designed by the famed architect Frank Gehry. (The museum had its “soft” opening last month, but the park has not yet been funded.)
On her early visits, she was introduced to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. “They were our science advisory team,” she said. “I met all these amazing scientists that were creating the science that measures global warming.”
“That’s how I actually began to do something about what I felt strongly about for years but was always too busy with landscape designing to do,” she said. “I always figured I plant enough trees to go to heaven.”
The Azuero Peninsula, where she bought land, is an arid, primarily agricultural region that has been heavily deforested for cattle farming.
“The dregs of the outdated chemicals of the world are being dumped on them,” she said Friday. Farmers there had been using outdated methods brought to them by outsiders. “They don’t have the old seeds anymore and they don’t know the old methods. Their soils are destroyed by chemicals and poor farming techniques . . . compacted by overgrazing,” she said.
They were aware that current practices weren’t working, they could see the effects of climate change firsthand, and because of this “they were really inspired to find a better way to farm.” Some of that involves looking back to old seed varieties, to pre-chemical methods, and some involves looking forward, using cutting-edge science to fix the soil and rebuilding it by planting trees and other resilient crops.
The Azuero Earth Project opened its office in Panama in early 2004. “We run on a shoestring, but basically due to the generosity of our donors . . . we can do a lot,” Ms. von Gal said. “We get these young, amazing scientists that come down to do thesis work. They build our science base and act as wonderful emissaries to the community.”
The peninsula is “a small enough place that I felt I could really make a difference,” she said.
“About two years ago, I said to all my clients, ‘How would you feel if we just took all of your properties toxin-free?’ ” Some of them were surprised that was not already the case. All of them said yes. “If their landscaping staff didn’t have the experience, we brought in people to assist them.”
“What we say is that you’re exchanging chemical inputs for intelligent input. . . . To my mind it’s more ineresting, understanding the lifecycle of plants. . . . That’s the connection to Panama: There’s no future in continuing to use chemicals because the more you use, the more you need, and they kill everything else.”
Perfect Earth is collaborating with the Peconic Land Trust to create an information and education center at its Bridge Gardens property in Bridgehampton. As part of that collaboration, Paul Wagner of Treewise is offering free advice on solving lawn and landscape problems without toxins every Thursday from noon to 4 p.m. through October.
“Lawns use two to four times as many chemicals as agriculture does,” Ms. von Gal said. To have what she calls a “PRFCT lawn,” people should seed, fertilize, and aerate in the fall, rather than the spring. Second, they should keep grass 31/2 to 4 inches high so it develops deeper roots. “If you cut the grass too short, you have to water it every day. Short grass allows the sun to hit the soil, which dries it out.”
“There are 118 landscape chemicals now being found in the Long Island aquifer,” she said. Drinking water quality is hugely important. “We’re saying, before you even get that far, do you know what it’s doing to your pets, to your children? People respond much better when it’s personal.”
She hopes to see this logic applied not only to home lawns, but to school campuses, playing fields, public parks, and even golf courses.
“I like to believe that someday when people see these really short-cut monoculture lawns, they’ll be suspicious of them,” Ms. von Gal said.
“We can make a huge difference in a very short period of time with actually a reduction of cost,” she said. “And if your landscaper doesn’t know how, do not get a new person, send them to us.”
The tastemakers and trendsetters in Ms. von Gal’s circle of clients and friends could well help turn the tide, making doing the right thing for the environment the “in” thing to do.
In addition to Ms. Sherman, the well-known photographer hosting the Aug. 30 picnic, the host committee this year includes Laurie Anderson, Nan Bush and Bruce Weber, Kim Cattrall, Blythe Danner, Calvin Klein, and Rufus Wainwright, who is also one of the musical guests. The musical lineup, under the direction of Jenni Muldaur, also includes the Persuasions, G.E. Smith, and Teddy Thompson.
Tickets to the benefit, billed as a family picnic, cost $100 for children and start at $1,000 for adults or $250 for those 35 or under.
Limited-edition platters by the artists Robert Longo and Billy Sullivan will be sold at the benefit and online for $650 apiece. Raffle tickets available online at $50 apiece or five for $200 buy a chance for, among other things, a four-night stay with two rooms at the American Trade Hotel in Panama City, two pairs of airline tickets, and a tour of the Azuero Earth Project’s reforestation and community education projects. All can be purchased at perfectearthproject.org.
The picnic runs from 4 to 7 p.m. on Aug. 30, with a rain date of Aug. 31.